The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Getting Around in Addis

Author - Arabella Stewart

After growing up here as a child and returning to live in 2009, the physical changes of the city are of course monumental. Although Addis remains one of the world's poorest cities, it is also one of the fastest growing cities - not only in Africa but the world - and the old ways of life amidst this new urban explosion of development and construction is often incongruous.

When I first returned the city was a complex junction of new roads in the process of being built by the Chinese, criss-crossing the city - there is now a major ring road that surrounds Addis and various highways which cut across the city. Sadly, however, there are still far too many cars creating both pollution and congestion and although the roads look as if they belong to a modern metropolis, old habits are hard to break and it is not uncommon to find a man trying to herd his goats across a major new road complete with its concrete median which acts as no deterrent! Pedestrian walkways have been erected over these roads but most of the population prefer to cross at their own pace and where they have always been used to crossing, no matter that a major road has transplanted the single lane that they were used to for decades.

Traffic and pedestrians in Addis Ababa
Traffic and pedestrians in Addis Ababa.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

Crossing roads as a pedestrian has always been adventurous to say the least - you would never dream of crossing a road with cars coming right at you in the UK but here it is the norm - there is no other way to venture across because zebra crossings here do not mean that cars will stop at all despite a recent law. So you take your chances where you need to cross and you will find that the cars will stop for you even if only for a moment - drivers have come to expect that people and even animals do indiscriminately cross the road... Just as they expect fellow drivers to be making u-turns or crossing roads in full view and speed of oncoming cars - they will stop to let you through albeit beeping at you and maybe waving a fist or two! Still as more adventurous as I have become at crossing the roads here, I would still never be brave enough to actually drive a car here! But as enraged as tempers can become, I have never actually witnessed any real road rage.

Observing vehicles in Addis is fascinating and rather like watching Cuba merging with New York - wonderfully preserved classic cars still being driven (often by elderly men or women) alongside expensive modern imported 4WD cars some with shaded windows and most driven by trendy and successful young Ethiopians also wearing designer sunglasses! I actually discovered my old family car from my childhood - a once pristine Opal Rekord from the 1960s, languishing in a car park and definitely on its last legs but still being driven by an elderly man with a walking stick.

Overloaded blue minibus
Overloaded blue minibus in Addis Ababa.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

In a city with a growing population of approximately 4 million people, there is constant movement from dawn to dusk. Distinct orange and yellow buses lumber along the streets while blue mini buses dart in and out of traffic; both move the majority of people packed in like sardines, as briskly as possible from A to B but as many of these buses as there are, it is clear that the need for increased public transport is critical. The little blue (usually Lada) cars and referred to as contract taxis, are mostly used by visiting ferengi (with extra pounds or dollars to spend) or residents on foreign salaries!

If the rumour is true however, the strain of public transport could be eased with a proposed Addis Ababa light rail system complete with 15 stations between Addis and Nazareth. The Light Railway Network (85% Chinese and 15% Ethiopian government funded) is expected to transport 20,000 passengers per day and is hoped to ease the severe traffic congestion that exists in Addis Ababa. There is also talk of a renewed passenger rail service between Addis and Djibouti which I remember taking as a child before it was closed in the 1970s. This would be a tremendous and most welcome opportunity for the tourism sector.

First Published in News File Winter 2011

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